Curator of Photography at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS)
Catherine Coleman is curator of photography at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS). Widely considered Spain’s foremost contemporary art collection, it is home to Picasso’s emblematic painting Guernica. Ms. Coleman joined the museum when it opened in 1986, having worked for the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Education since 1973. She wrote her doctoral thesis in Madrid on self-portraiture, Dalí, Picasso and Miró.
I believe you have been curator of the photography collection at the Reina Sofia since the post was created. Would you like to explain how that came about?
Yes. The museum, and therefore the Spanish state, created funding for a permanent post in 1995. Until then, photography had been joined with the print and drawing department. So this meant recognition for photography at last. By 1995, it was clear that photography was where things were going. We find Spanish artists such as Luis Gordillo and Dario Villalba using photography-based art works in the late 1960s, and from that time on we also begin to find photography as the evidence of ephemeral events such as performance. So I would say photography was part of what was happening in art here, but it was a question of making it official. I chose photography over print and drawing because it seemed like a big open question mark within contemporary art. It was exciting. I think that is still true today. Now we are seeing photography using digital techniques, but printed on archival paper. This comes full circle back to the origins of photography and photogravure in the late 19th century. So there is a question: where we will be in the future? That question mark does not exist in the world of prints and drawings.
The broader context of Spanish photography is not very well known. Could you give us a brief historical perspective and comment on other state collections?
Spain has not been a forward-looking country until relatively recent times, and there was not a great deal of wealth here in the first half of the 20th century. Photography is a very expensive sport, or hobby, so in Spain it was the upper-middle classes who began playing around with it. That tradition produced some very good photography, which is not well known outside of Spain. The museum itself does not have a good representation of photography before 1950, primarily because we try not to repeat state collections within Spain. The Reales Sociedades de Fotografía (Royal Photography Societies) have good historic collections, and so does the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (National Museum of Catalonia), where the collection is specifically focussed on past Catalan artists, and the Fundación Universidad de Navarra (University of Navarre Foundation), which has the Ortiz Echagüe collection. In Madrid we also have the Biblioteca Nacional de España (National Library of Spain). We try not to compete with these or other specialized collections. For example, I don’t assiduously collect photomontage knowing that the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (Valencian Institute of Modern Art) has a fabulous collection. I pass anything of interest on to them. Other curators give me a ring if they see something from 1950s or 1960s photographers from Madrid. Photography is a very small world here, and we’re all colleagues.
Your position in shaping the museum’s photography collection has been unique. Do you respond to policy leads from above?
On certain occasions we need to respond to upstairs needs—for example, we joined in with the 400th anniversary celebrations of the publication of Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which was a national event. But I wouldn’t say there has been a declared policy. I would say that every director of a state-owned museum has a personal approach, which one sees reflected in acquisitions over a period of time. María Corral, director in the early 1990s, favored conceptual and minimal art. Later, José Guirao embraced contemporary photography by artists under 40 years old, which led to the creation of Espacio Uno, a dedicated space started with the collaboration of Rafael Doctor, who is presently director of Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y León (Museum of Contemporary Art of Castile León). It was a very exciting period. At the same time, I was doing more traditional exhibitions. Juan Manuel Bonet, the next director, was very interested in work from the 1920s to the 1940s and filled in gaps in the collection that way.
The museum’s photography department has been independent for just over a decade now. Looking back, do you feel it has nurtured a growing awareness of art photography?
I really think it has been left to outsiders who have been saying, “When is the museum going to do something about photography?” It is an area of art whose time has come. The Institut Valencià d’Árt Modern was the first collection, started in 1988. At the present moment there is just a wall and a half of photography in the permanent collection. Right now we have four images by Pierre Gonnard, Per Barclay, Per Jaume and Chema Madoz. However, the main collection is due to be reorganized, and I am sure that this department will then have a permanent place, not only just to show new acquisitions, but also to intervene in the collection itself. For example, there is great Spanish photography from the 1950s that goes very well with informalist painting, even if it is not hanging on the same wall. That is how I think about it. The present team knows this is an overdue issue.
You have mentioned directorial shifts of emphasis. How would you describe your own role in shaping the exhibitions and acquisitions policy?
I would say that I have studied the collection, and I have tried to observe the gaps in it. I’ve also suggested lines of action via exhibitions to bring the general public into photography from its earliest years. The first important historical exhibition, held in the late 1990s, was of work by the Spanish pictorialist photographer Ortiz Echagüe, a contemporary of Stieglitz—so let’s say, that put down a marker on Spain’s contribution to photography history in the early 20th century. We followed that with a Fox Talbot exhibition. I thought it was very important to go back to the origins of photography.
Has the collection grown significantly in the last decade? Does it have any special areas of strength?
Most of our acquisitions start in 1992. Altogether we have about 3,500 images. I try as much as possible to acquire, buy and ask for donations of work by photographers from the 1950s and 1960s who have no real market yet because they are not well known, even though there is some excellent work. As a Spanish national museum, we don’t have the buying flexibility of a private museum. Every economic commitment has to be approved by our trustees; so going to auction is difficult. I consider that once a living photographer is in the collection, we should do a follow-up every two to three years to see what they are doing, and I believe we should have a good representation of the winners of the Premio Nacional de Fotografía (National Photography Prize) such as Alberto García-Alix, Cristina García Rodero, Chema Madoz, Toni Catany, among others—that’s to say, we should build up really good collections of their work as a point of interest and reference for people who want to study Spanish photography.
You mentioned that most of the acquisitions have been made in the last decade or so. Do you think any of them are particularly exciting or noteworthy?
Well, we have bought some photochromes dating from the 1880s. They are views of Spain realized with an interesting process of black-and-white photography colored by lithographic means. The idea of illusion in color photography seemed very important to us. We also recently bought Camera Work magazine, 1903 to 1917, in which one can find the few examples of color photography from that time. Then we can jump to our own era. In the mid-1980s, when large format color photography became a possibility, galleries’ interest in it as a commercial item took off here. Now, of course, in the digital age, there is fantastic color resolution. We have acquisitions for each of those stages. The idea is that eventually we will be able to show a little progression of where we are going.
Does one need to think in terms of regional patterns for regional photography? Have there been schools of approach linked to particular cities?
Basically, with censorship in place, black-and-white photography up until the mid-1960s was about traditions and customs in Spain. It was an acritical tradition for obvious reasons. One can often tell through the subject matter whether photography is from a particular area, such as the Mediterranean. When Barcelona was the center of the avant-garde in Spain, it had a notable abstract school of photography. Today, though, I think the cities and regions are so interconnected that you cannot think in terms of national or regional identities.
Do you perceive any particularly important challenges in your work? I imagine that showcasing Spanish photography from the past and present might be one of them.
Yes. There are very few Spanish names known in photography circles on the other side of the Atlantic; Joan Fontcuberta, Alberto García-Alix and Cristina García Rodero are the only known names if you are thinking of photographers working today. If you are looking at the history of photography, only Ortiz Echagüe is really known abroad. Things are beginning to move, but there is a lot to do.
Do any of the exhibitions that you have curated stand out in your mind as especially important? What do you hope to achieve when you show contemporary photographers?
One can have faith in particular artists’ work and help get the ball rolling for them. We can do good catalogues and help to get people known further afield. I don’t want to mention too many names because there is a long line of very good work by Spanish photographers. But to give one example, we showed work by Chema Madoz from a ten-year period, and thanks to that exposure, he has been picked up by a gallery in Arizona, and his work has won an award in Japan. Doing shows of photographers like that, who have a substantial body of work behind them, is something that I feel the museum should do. These kinds of photographers really deserve to have a permanent space. The Museum has a mission, which really has yet to be put into action—to promote Spanish art, to mix avant-garde art now with that from the past.
How far is photography integrated with other media in the collection here? Do you work closely with other departments?
We work in parallel, rather than together, but we are always interested in what each department is doing. We cross-reference between photography, video and sculpture, so we know what each department has. That is easily done. Exactly how integrated we will be in the future is in the decision-making phase. Restoration is also vital to me. I think we have a very good restoration team, and we have a very good dialogue with them. Photography is very delicate, so taking care of things well is important.
Luis Buñuel’s classic short movie Un chien andalou, made in 1929, is on show as part of the permanent collection. That seems to be an excellent example of work that crosses boundaries.
Whenever I can, I try to go down and make sure that the film is working well because I think it’s so fabulous. You realize what surrealism is all about when you see that movie. Just outside we have Man Ray’s photograph of Max Ernst, who appears in the movie for two seconds. That is an example of how we can bring things together.
You have been in a unique position to observe the development of Spanish photography in the last 30 years. Has it reflected the speed of social change here?
What is very obvious, I think, is that in the very early 1970s, Spanish photographers became very aggressive and began photographing the Spanish urban scene, music and alternative lifestyles. This is well before Franco’s death, so I don’t think it’s an issue of before and after the dictatorship at all. There was a lot of irreverence and large doses of Spanish black humor, bordering on the surrealistic and linking back to Buñuel. I enjoy that very much. Spaniards love to take issue with themselves over Catholicism or lack of social progress.
Photography elsewhere has been flourishing around a natural crossover between art and commercial work. Has this occurred in Spain?
Only very recently has there been a market for art photography here, so photographers have always been on both sides of the fence. Javier Vallhonrat, for example, another winner of the National Photography prize, does commercial work, and other photographers work with fashion. I think this kind of thing happens everywhere. After all, even Brice Marden worked as a guard at New York’s Jewish Museum.
You mentioned earlier that photography here is a very small world. Do you have a lot of contact with relevant university departments, galleries and the main art and photography events?
There is a complete divorce between the academic and the museum world here. During Jose Guirao’s period, a space was made available for university professors to give classes within the museum context. But the students didn’t come. “PhotoEspaña,” Madrid’s major annual photo event, has a positive place and has fulfilled its mission. It has a lot of support on every level and you can see the work of photographers you don’t know there. ARCO, the Annual Contemporary Art Fair, is also very big and needs homework ahead of time. I have to say that I really admire the Spanish galleries. I have a very good relationship with them. They go out there, they find new talent and they stick by it. They’ll call and say, there’s someone hot, come over and see it. That is the best way to see new talent here. We see each other, we talk, there’s lots of verbal networking.
The Spanish art scene has enjoyed very fast growth in recent years. Is there any institution that has been particularly influential in photography?
What is making a big difference, I think, is the proliferation of new art museums. Twenty-five years of democracy, twenty-five new contemporary art museums. Many of them have great architecture, but they don’t have permanent collections yet. They are building them—this is where the action is, I think. For example, I really respect the work being done by Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y León or Artrium, the fine arts museum in Vitoria, in the Basque Country. The Guggenheim Bilbao was also an influence there, as a cultural focus for a city. I should mention an excellent photographic magazine here, too, run by Rosa Olivares, called EXIT. It is really very good indeed, a project by an exceptional individual.
Are there any specific issues that concern you right now? They may relate to the collection here at the Museum, or they may be wider issues.
I think one of the objectives of our present director, Ana Martínez Aguilar, is to really create an institution, not so much in terms of what is seen from the outside by the public, but in terms of setting up long-term means and ways needed for the Museum to work well. What hasn’t been defined within that yet is the space reserved for photography. Are we going to be on a second rung, or will photography have a first-rate role within the permanent collection? That definition is coming soon. I am quite optimistic. There is another general issue here. Spanish photographers expect institutions to produce their exhibitions. I think that is reasonable up to a certain point—the new enlargements needed for a show may be very expensive. However with my colleagues, I firmly believe that if a museum is going to promote an artist with its staff time, expertise and so on, and pay for enlargements, some percentage of the work—not all of it, of course—should remain with the institution. I am trying to work for a consensus between the main state institutions on this issue. The work of art is in the idea, of course, but also on a tangible piece of paper. There are ways of negotiating multiple arts. This is a big issue in the 21st century.
Do you have a dream project that you would like to carry out here at the museum? I was thinking of something long-term that might grow out of the collection.
Photography is not a pure art. It was born a bastard and it changes all the time through its relationships with the chemical, optical and electronic industry. Where is that going to end up? I would love to do something that presents that question to a general public that gets away from the snapshot on the wall. I would like to go over the collection and bring out a very wide range of work in which there is some incidence of photography. I would try to do that with Spanish work as far as possible, unless it is clearly emulating earlier work elsewhere. One could show top artists who used photography early on like Luis Gordillo in the late ’60s and the younger Javier Esteban, for example, who works with sand, alongside other photography that shows how so much of what we do is image-based today. Photography is all over the map; it was born that way—born to be ubiquitous. Well, let’s recognize that. There is also the question of generations of photography. I can remember the first television in my family. Nowadays children are born with television and computers. You could argue that apart from the practicalities of conservation, a photography department should not really exist—there are so many painters who are photographers and vice versa. You could say that such an exhibition would visualize a lot of Susan Sontag’s ideas.
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of modern art, is found in the center of Madrid (Calle Santa Isabel, 52), close to the Prado Museum. For information on the collection and the museum’s activities visit www.museoreinasofia.es.
Vicky Hayward is a writer, journalist and editor whose articles about the arts, travel, social issues and food are published internationally. She lives between Madrid and London and can be contacted through [email protected]
The Corcoran Gallery of Art occupies an unusual place in the federally funded landscape of Washington DC museums and galleries. Surviving as it does: a long-established private institution bobbing up and down through waves of controversy, applause and economic crisis, it is a school and a museum and probably closer to the heart of the Washington-area art scene than it’s heavily endowed neighbors. Now under new leadership, it is poised for change. Paul Roth, the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Curator of Photography and Media Arts, is ready for the challenge: his areas of expertise are postwar American photography and the history of film. Politics and art fascinate him. Looking at images: anxiety and discomfort provoke him. The Corcoran, with its privately funded flexibility in this government town seems like the ideal place for this curator.
Your background is a degree in Art History at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Was curating art always a goal?
I first wanted to be a photographer. I was lucky enough to grow up in Tucson, where one of the best high school programs for photography is located at Tucson High School, and I trained there and thought I would become a photojournalist. When I was 18 I looked for work at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, a place I had visited since I was 14, and I was hired to catalog the Edward Weston Project Print Collection. This was an amazing leap on their part, to hire a teenager to do something like that, and it changed my life. I decided to become a curator while working there during the next five years. I’m not sure what lead directly to that decision; I was there because I loved the medium and liked being around pictures. It consumed me. I was able to do many things and had access to their great collections of photography and archival materials, and in time it just seemed obvious that my career would be in curating.
You’ve been with the Corcoran Gallery of Art for over 11 years. Were you a photography intern at another museum prior to that? When did your fascination with postwar American photography grow into a passion?
I’ve worked at three museums. From the Center for Creative Photography I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where I worked for Sarah Greenough as the archivist for the Robert Frank Collection and served as the assistant for the retrospective Robert Frank: Moving Out. After Moving Out was completed I was hired at the Corcoran by one of that exhibition’s curators, Philip Brookman. Between the National Gallery and the Corcoran I worked briefly at the Library of Congress and the Washington Project for the Arts on specific projects. I’ve had incredible luck in that I’ve always worked for great people and had fascinating jobs with great collections. “Learning from the experience” has become the meaning of my life.
The amazing access I had to the work of Robert Frank is what drove me to specialize in post-war American photography. It’s unfashionable to use the word “genius” these days (and he probably doesn’t like hearing this) but Robert really is one. For 4 ½ years I was able to work every day with his work prints, proof sheets and negatives, and to think exclusively about his photography and his books. I began to think of American photo history as it led to him and grew out of his influence. Ultimately my understanding of art, politics and life was affected by his visual legacy.
In addition to your work as a curator, you also teach the history of film and you have organized a number of film series for the National Gallery including “The Films of Gordon Parks,” a photographer who donated 227 of his works to the Corcoran, following an exhibition of his work. Now that we have entered the digital age and high quality DVDs are readily available, do you see more still photographers creating narrative film-like presentations and more collectors turning to film and video as collectible?
A couple years ago I saw a multimedia narrative presentation of still and moving images by an artist while judging work for a grant-making organization. It was an amazing packaging of disparate documentary works on a single subject. Unfortunately I have seen nothing like it since. Some individuals are collecting media arts in digital form, though very few have offered such works as gifts to the Corcoran. I’m not sure whether the number has increased dramatically in recent years, though certainly more artists are making work for presentation on DVD, whether in installations or as projected pieces. The collectors I know of who acquire lots of projected media works are the bravest ones, the ones collecting on the cutting edge, the ones least concerned with displaying the object quality of their acquisitions.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is rooted in Washington DC’s history. As a privately funded museum in 1869, it was founded “for the purpose of encouraging American Genius.” William Wilson Corcoran, the philanthropist whose collection of American Art was the basis of the museum, is reputed to have bought work only from artists with well-established reputations. Today the Corcoran stands in the shadow of much larger government-funded Washington museums. Competition is fierce and photographs from well-established artists have reached the same stratospheric heights as painting and sculpture. Does the Corcoran still adhere to its founder’s dictum of collecting only blue-chip art?
“Blue-chip art” can be interpreted a number of ways: while it seems to generically refer to work of a high quality, it also implies a high prospective investment value, or work by “name” artists, in the sense of “blue chip stocks.” And in that sense we do not acquire only blue chip work, because to do so would violate the very nature of photography, which in my view is a democratic medium. We acquire documentary and vernacular work as well as fine art photography, and we acquire work by younger and lesser-known artists as well as established figures. Both in photography and in contemporary art, collecting means taking risks, and much of the best work in our collection has come because we have tried to remain open-minded and take chances. Having said that, we are currently re-focusing our energies to plug certain gaps in our holdings, and that will mean targeting specific artists and particular works.
We do have many great collections of photography in Washington, some of them vast and encyclopedic in scope, such as those at the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the various museums of the Smithsonian. Because they are here, we do not need to duplicate what they do. And we couldn’t, even if we wanted to. So we try to build our collection and make it better than before.
Considering that photography was in its infancy when William Wilson Corcoran bequeathed his collection to the museum, how did the photographic collection begin at the Corcoran? Was there a major donor who began it with a similar passionate interest in American Photography? According to David Levy, director of Corcoran Gallery for many years prior to resigning in 2005, photography collecting was pioneered by the Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman House and the Corcoran. Who were those pioneers at the Corcoran?
While the Corcoran is an important part of the story of the institutional recognition of photography as art, we are not pioneers in the sense that MoMA or the Eastman House are. But we did begin accepting photography into the collection in the 19th century, and we began exhibiting photography during the Pictorialist era. William Wilson Corcoran himself is likely the person who brought the first photographs into the collection. But the real “pioneers” of photography at the Corcoran were the people who made the medium an active part of the museum’s program in the late 1960s and into the 1970s and 1980s: Walter Hopps, Jane Livingston and Frances Fralin. They all did groundbreaking work during their respective tenures at the museum.
The Corcoran also is well known for its School of Art and Design (now College of Art + Design) founded in 1890. Is it a common practice for alumni to contribute to the Corcoran’s photography collection?
The collection does include the work of Corcoran alumni and faculty members. From the 1970s on, the museum has been an important force in the local practice of photography, and it was a natural step to reflect that in our collection. We still do so, though we are particularly cognizant of the potential for conflicts of interest. But to give a recent example, last year we acquired works by Joyce Tenneson that were made during the early 1980s when she worked in Washington.
The Corcoran appears to be undergoing a major shift in direction since 2006 when Paul Greenhalgh was appointed as director and president of the Corcoran. The long touted new addition by architect Frank Gehry has been sidelined, exhibition schedules have been dramatically altered, and there is talk of a return to generating exhibitions from the Corcoran curatorial staff rather than relying on exhibitions organized by other institutions. However, the current exhibitions Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005, both through January 2008, were both organized by other museums. What plans does your department have for fulfilling this new directive?
The Corcoran has and will continue to host interesting traveling exhibitions, just as we organize our own exhibitions and send them out on the road. Both Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005 are examples of shows organized elsewhere that we thought our audiences would want to see. But we’ve been making our own major exhibitions all along and will continue to do so. Under Paul Greenhalgh’s leadership we are changing the way we make major exhibitions, but I don’t think we are planning to ignore other museum’s exhibitions. We are still always looking to see what is out there that fits well with our program, and we are well aware that we can’t organize every type of show our audience wants to see.
We are planning several major exhibitions that involve photography. Right now I am organizing Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power, a survey of Avedon’s portraiture that deals with politics and power. The work included spans his career and the show will be timed to the American presidential election season, opening just after the conventions in Fall 2008 and running through the end of the inaugural in January 2009. Philip Brookman, who is now our Director of Curatorial Affairs, is organizing an Eadweard Muybridge retrospective for 2010. And a team of our curators is working on a sweeping survey of Postmodernism for 2011, which will include many photography and new media works.
Where will you turn to for these new curatorial initiatives? What feeds your curatorial imagination?
I’m really interested in the intersection between photography and politics, and in the ways that photographers use the medium to reflect the social world. I’m not sure if I developed this interest from being in Washington, or if I came here because this was the perfect place to view the medium through this filter. Working on the Robert Frank archive at the National Gallery, in a building near the U.S. Capitol, was certainly an influence. Seeing how artists think when installing their work in the Corcoran, which is a few hundred feet from the White House, has been an ongoing revelation. Context is so important: we always think about how images reflect the country — and its people, its promise and problems — when considering our exhibitions.
You are a photographer as well as a curator. Your work was included in the Crosscurrents series at the University of Maryland in the 2004 “Room Full of Mirrors.” The 14 artists in the exhibit were described as ‘using the collage aesthetic; incorporating various methods using chance and accident to allow creativity to work through them not from them.’ You have also been involved in a grass roots organization of Washington area artists WPA\C that until recently was part of the Corcoran Museum. You have juried exhibits for many organizations. Clearly, you have a pulse on the kind of work being generated by contemporary and as yet unheralded photographers. What trends do you see there?
Well, interestingly, I don’t feel all that “in touch” right now! I’ve been buried under the work I’m doing on the big shows we have scheduled. But when I do have time to look at new work, I’m really interested in how photographers are evolving their representation of capitalism and its discontents. Gursky’s rational re-orderings of the middle class world of consumption and power are giving way to more explicitly political visions like Chris Jordan. I’m also seeing more work I like that seems suffused with a blanket of anxiety, like that of Amy Stein, Noelle Ta, and Kate MacDonnell, all of whom have roots here in D.C. And I am interested in the ongoing return to earlier photographic processes in the face of the medium’s eclipse at the dawn of digital.
You were also part of a panel discussion, “The Artist’s Responsibility in a Political Environment” that reflected on the role of the artist as a political pundit and activist. Documentary photography has a long established place in political activism but what about the new photography where lines are blurred between the real and the created?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I have to say that I think most fictional, performative and theatrical work is really boring. It is, I think, the most overrated avenue of photography I can think of. Most of the work I see shows just how hard it is to make a single image out of set design and stage direction — usually the work people praise is incredibly awkward, emotionally empty and totally unrevealing. I am kind of fascinated by own negative response, though, and I want to investigate this work more so I can see why I reject so much of the work I see. I recently got Lori Pauli’s exhibition catalog from her show at the National Gallery of Canada, Acting The Part (Merrell, 2006) so I can learn more about it. Maybe it will temper my attitude.
The Corcoran’s Director Paul Greenhalgh was quoted in a Washington Times interview as saying: “This institution should be a think tank. We’re not in the business of pleasing people; we should also challenge and educate.” With that in mind: what would be your ideal exhibition?
My ideal exhibition is a survey of the medium through the notion of the uncanny, first defined by Freud as the state where something is both familiar and foreign at the same time, resulting in profound discomfort and anxiety. This show would look at photography’s history as a vehicle for exploring what lies beneath the visible: the uncomfortable truth below the pleasing, understood and well-ordered surface. My favorite photographs are the ones that destabilize our consciousness rather than confirm what we think we know.
Any plans for that in the future?
Well, fortunately yes! That show is tentatively scheduled at the Corcoran for 2011–12. If all goes well it will be the next big show I work on after Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is located at New York Avenue and 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Please see the Gallery’s website for hours and admission fees.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Photography Curator Sandra Phillips
Sandra Phillips is Senior Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an institution that has dynamically supported and collected photography since its opening in 1935. Phillips received a B.A. in art and art history from Bard College in 1967 and an M.A. from Bryn Mawr College in 1969. She earned a Ph.D. in art history in 1985 from City University of New York, where she specialized in the history of photography and American and European art from 1849 to 1940. Phillips has written and lectured widely on photography and is the author or co-author of several books and catalogues. Her recent exhibitions include: “John Szarkowski: Photographs”; “Diane Arbus Revelation”; “Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence”; and “Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation.” Despite the globalization of media and the arts, regional differences are a curious reminder that a sense of place still informs our imagery. Sandra Phillips has an unusual vantage point having grown up with the New York’s MoMA and overseeing the photography collection at SFMOMA.
All of your university degrees, including your Ph.D. from the City of New York, are in art and art history where you specialized in the history of photography along with American and European art from 1849 to 1940. Did you have a primary mentor for the study of photography’s history at that time?
No, but I grew up in New York and loved museums, and I consider myself a student of the work shown at the MoMA. In fact, I remember seeing the show, “New Documents.” I remember seeing the Arbus pictures because I went with a friend, and she thought it would be fun to go. I remember seeing a man spit at some of the pictures in the show.
When did you gravitate towards photography as a field of study?
I come from a family of art people -my dad was an architect, my mom a landscape architect, and I thought I would be a painter, so when I went to school, that’s what I studied. But I became more interested in looking at art, and it seemed really interesting that no one was then taking the history of modern American art really seriously -this was in the 60s. And then when I got more involved in modern American art, it seemed that one of the major contributions was in photography, which was even less studied, and that intrigued me even more.
Under the direction of curator John Humphrey, SFMOMA was one of the first museums to recognize photography as an art form, over 70 years ago. Can you tell us what initiated that recognition and began the process of creating the SFMOMA’s photography collection in 1935, the same year that it opened? Was there a special collection donated to the museum at that time?
The San Francisco Museum of Art, as it was then called, was founded by a group of wealthy local individuals. You realize that San Francisco became a city very suddenly when gold was discovered, so everyone in the world was interested in San Francisco, and the 49ers were here and many of them used the services of the daguerreotypists to send records of their recent fortunes back home. There has been a very strong interest in photography here since the 19th century–remember Carleton Watkins, Muybridge, and others used this as their base. There has never been a tradition of important art created here -that is relatively new, but when the museum was founded in the 30s there was an impressive range of important photographers he could own or lease. This might include tents, caves, pictures made within buildings, etc. He is still an active collector, and I tease him that we’re planning the Return of the Paul and Prentice Sack Collection.
SFMOMA recently received another significant donation from the Emil & Silverstein Collection. What distinguishes this collection from the Sack collection?
This is a very different collection. I would describe the pictures as psychologically informed. It is historical, but the emphasis is on work of surrealist inflection produced in the 1930s and the present. The pictures are also in their own way very personally meaningful to their owners, in a very different way from
the work in the Sack collection.
SFMOMA prides itself as having from the first, viewed photography as a modernist art form. Its collection of over 15,000 prints is known for it’s early American and European modernist photographers as well as Western American Landscape photography. How does modernist photography differ from contemporary photography? Would you define photography in the same terms today as in the days of your predecessor, Van Deren Coke, who established the department of photography in 1980?
I would define modernist photography as photographs which aspire to modern art, and which were made by Americans and Europeans in the 1920s and 30s, essentially. Since I came to the museum, in 1987, I have enlarged the scope to include 19th century and have emphasized our tradition of landscape representation. Coke thought about photography in terms of modernist art -I believe the concerns of contemporary photographers are related but different.
In 1980 the exhibit “California Photography 1945-1980” examined the aesthetic and history of photographic image-making unique to California. Do you think there remains a special sensibility that divides West Coast from East Coast photography?
First, I had nothing to do with the California show, but yes, I would generally say that in the west there is an abiding interest in land use and land issues, which is not generally shared by photographers or audiences for photography in the east.
In California today, what influences define West Coast photography?
There is more of an understanding of Asia here.
Before coming to SFMOMA in 1987, you were the curator at Vassar Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie, New York. Did your experience at Vassar provide you with a heightened sensitivity to women photographers?
Not really, I was there for about a year. But in general, photography has provided women with opportunities not so obvious or available in other fields.
You have organized exhibits and written numerous essays on women photographers, most notable Dorothea Lange in 1994 and Helen Levitt in 1991. Your essay “Women Artists in California & Their Engagement in photography” appeared in the book Art/Women/California 1950-2000. What special concerns faced women photographers in the past, and do you believe that many of those photographers may still be undervalued?
If you mean monetarily undervalued, I suppose you could say that, but this is an aspect of the field that really doesn’t interest me too much. The “concerns” that women faced in the past are ones they -we -face today. If we are mothers who need to work, how do we do this? That is probably the most obvious difference.
There is an interesting story about one of Dorothea Lange’s most famous photos, a migrant farm worker named Florence Thompson. As Lange’s photo gained wider recognition and value, Florence and her children came forward, angry that neither monetary compensation nor a copy of the photo were ever given to them. You recently organized the Diane Arbus exhibit, another controversial photographer often accused of exploiting her subjects. How do you address this issue when the subject comes up?
Well Lange worked for the government, she had a job, and her photographs were made to serve a purpose, one that she very much believed in; then the times changed. I do not think she would have said she was exploiting her subjects. And frankly I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that Arbus “exploited” her subjects either, they look very interested in her, as much as she in them. When she was making these images, they were very new, very raw material. I don’t think you would see anyone today spitting on her photograph of a young man in curlers, as I saw in the MoMA exhibit “New Documents.” I think we’ve become more tolerant, as a culture.
Documentary photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, never anticipated their work on a museum or gallery wall. Their photographs told a story meant for the printed page of national magazines. It seems that today’s documentary photographers anticipate a museum or gallery exhibit along with a well-designed coffee table book. Do you think that the nature of documentary photography has changed to appeal to a more limited audience?
Photography has changed technologically, and the ambition of certain photographers has changed, I think that is the way I would put it. Someone wise once said that the process gets easier but the number of important photographs remains the same. There is a lot of indifferent work being made, but some very interesting work as well.
Many of the snapshots of today, along with the news photos of our time, are in digital form. It is very likely that no “paper trail” will exist in the future for these kinds of images. The history of fine art photography is filled with images that were never intended to be considered fine art. Is this concept lost forever to future collectors and curators?
If so, maybe that is not such a bad option -look at all the bad stuff out there, and consider all the time needed to sort out the good from the dull.
You’ve spent a good deal of research time at the Vatican Photography Collection and recently received a Getty fellowship to return to Rome and continue your research. What special fascination does
this collection hold for you?
It’s mainly unknown work by unknown photographers from all over the world.
With John Szarkowski, you organized a major retrospective on Ansel Adams, in 2001, then curated a major retrospective of Szarkowski’s photographs that recently traveled to the NY MoMA. What’s next for SFMOMA? Any future plans for another major retrospective such as one on Van Deren Coke?
My next big project will be on voyeurism and surveillance. I’m working on a big exhibit about things that are forbidden to be photographed: like violence and death and sexual images. It is also about how we are watched and our ambivalence about photography. It is about a culture that is ferociously looking at images that are taboo.
SFMOMA is located at 151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets) San Francisco, California. For general information call (415) 357-4000 or visit www.sfmoma.org.
Kay Kenny is a photographer, writer, and teaches photography at ICP, NYU and SHU, web: www.kaykenny.com, e-mail:[email protected]
Malcolm Daniel: Metropolitan Museum of Art
During a weekday afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few tourists straggle in and a woman with a traveling easel and unfinished copy of an 18th-century portrait passes by. Two educators compare their students’ drawings from the Pre-Columbian section. When we meet, Malcolm Daniel, newly appointed Curator in Charge of the relatively new Department of Photography, breaks into a smile. He assures me that while photography has only recently gained a department and curator of its own within this museum’s vast encyclopedic collection, it’s been around much longer.
Photography departments in university art schools were just beginning when you received your B.A. in Art History & Studio Art from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut in 1978. Did your art history studies include the history of photography?
No, there wasn’t a history of photography program offered at the time. There is one now. At the time I was studying printmaking and painting. I had visions of being an artist and I was studying the range of art history from ancient to modern. I had a mild interest in photography.
In a way, the most important aspect of my education, one that shaped the career I would follow, was a semester spent in Rome where I had inspiring teachers and the experience of going into the city and studying art history by standing in front of the actual art object and architecture. It was that experience of contact with the real works of art and what you could learn from that contact, that confirmed an interest I already had of working in a museum. It was also true that the more great art I saw, the more humble I felt about my own range in the art world, so I became more and more confirmed as an art historian. I do think that as an art historian I’ve been helped by having had that experience of trying to make art myself. I have a better understanding of how those physical processes work as a result of my printmaking experiences.
Peter Bunnell was a leading force in the development of a History of Photography Program at Princeton University where you received your M.A. and PhD in 1987 and 1991. How did he shape your interest in photography?
That’s really where my interest in photo history blossomed. Before going to graduate school I worked in the education department at the Baltimore Museum -bout five years. While I was there I developed a deeper interest in the graphic arts in 19th-century France and in photography.
At Princeton, having the opportunity to work with primary material in the Minor White Archive, and Peter’s dedication to teaching history with the actual object – it was his instruction, his enthusiasm and his passion that ultimately led me into photographic history. I didn’t go to Princeton to study photo history! I went thinking I would do something in modern painting or sculpture then gravitated towards 19th-century France. I decided, however, to do something that excited me a lot: Work where I could make a contribution. That was the work I had done with Peter in an area of photography where there was still so much primary research to be done.
You were still working on your doctorate in 1990 when you joined the Metropolitan Museum as a curatorial assistant. That must have been an exciting time to be there just as Maria Morris Hambourg began working with Howard Gilman and Pierre Apraxine to shape the Gilman Paper Company’s Photography collection as a compliment to the museum. What was your role as her assistant with this enormously important collection?
Actually, I had been a fellow in 1987 and 1988 in what was then the department of Prints and Photographs and worked with Maria Hambourg at the beginning stages of my dissertation. We got to know each other. I then went off and did a year of research in the archives in Paris. I was writing my dissertation in 1989, 1990 when a position opened up and she held the job open for six months for me so that I could finish the dissertation before starting work. She knew we would work well together.
It was a very exciting moment in the department. We were on the verge of becoming an independent curatorial department. Certainly the great attraction of coming to the Met was the opportunity to work with Maria, whom I admired so much, still admire so much, and from whom I have learned so much, as well as the chance to work with a great collection in an encyclopedic museum. From the moment Maria came to the Met, in late 1985, early 1986, the relationship with the Gilman collection began to build. By 1990, they were already envisioning the exhibition “The Waking Dream” and that collaboration intensified. I’ve always worked with the whole collection but my heart has always been with the 19th century. It’s the period I feel the most passionate about and done the most research in, but the history of photography is relatively short and in this department we all contribute to the discussion about works from the whole history. Each of us have a special area, an area that we love more than others, but we all feel comfortable participating in discussion – that’s what makes it so exciting.
Your area of expertise is described as 19th-century French and British photography. Was it the Gilman collection that brought you to the museum or did you see the Metropolitan Museum’s on-going interest in early photography as a perfect compliment to your own interests? I’m referring to Alfred Stieglitz’s collection of turn-of-the century photographs and the photographs from the Ford Motor Company Collection.
Well, it’s not accidental that Maria Hombourg had a deep interest in 19th-century French photography, which was the area that my dissertation was in, the French landscape and architectural photographer Edouard Baldus. It was an area that she was interested in building within the collection. Part of that was the Gilman Collection, but we also made major acquisitions for the collection in 19th-century French photography since the moment Maria arrived. By the time I got here, the collection had two great strengths, the Stieglitz Collection, which had come in as a gift from Stieglitz in 1933, and the Ford Motor Company Collection acquired in 1987.
The Stieglitz Collection included some of the greatest works by Pictorialist photographers and members of the Photo Succession so we had incomparable strength from the period of 1895 to 1915. The Ford Collection assembled by John Waddell, a great New York collector, is a collection of 500 American and European photographs of an era between the two world wars. That extended our collection up to World War II. Maria’s task was to strengthen what came before the Steiglitz Collection and what came after the Ford Collection.
You have also been instrumental in acquiring work from the Rubel Collection and curated an exhibit in 1999, “Inventing a New Art: Early Photographs from the Rubel Collection.” How did that come about?
We had various opportunities throughout the 1990’s to acquire French photographs that trickled out from people’s cupboards and came through auctions and dealers and were pretty successful. We weren’t as successful with the British material. Part of that had to do with the market. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there was a great rush of British material to the auction houses as the photography auctions began in the 1970’s in London. Libraries and manor houses emptied out into those auctions as people discovered that there might be value in those old photographs, but the museum did not buy anything during those years! The study of the history of photography wasn’t developed enough yet. There weren’t the books, the tools, there wasn’t yet a connoisseurship, a sense of what the print should look like.
So, after the rush of materials to the auction houses, it all dried up. The William Rubel Collection gave us a second chance. He assembled the collection in the late 1970’s, early ’80’s when maybe only half-a-dozen people were seriously collecting. Rubel put together a very remarkable collection with enormous strength in British photography, particularly those four pillars of 19th-century British photography, Talbot, Hill and Adamson, Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron.
You founded the Alfred Stieglitz Society about seven years ago. Is this a special interest group dedicated to early photography?
We’ve always had a visiting committee, which is a kind of advisory committee for the department. It’s made up of prominent collectors and a couple of people from academia including Peter Bunnell and Eugenia Parry. She was the person who wrote the book “The Art of French Calotype” but we wanted a way to expand our circle of friends and supporters so we founded this friends group for photography from the past right up to the present. It developed into this very lively and supportive group of about fifty individuals or couples, most of them collectors. The members are by invitation, but we do welcome queries and the members do spread the word. Our one restriction is that it is not open to dealers or people involved in the trade. Members pay dues each year. There are events throughout the year that include visits to artist studios and to private collections, tours of our exhibitions and curatorial seminars working with the Met collections. We balance our program with 19th century, vintage 20th century to contemporary photography. For instance, this year Jeff Wall spoke to us at our first event of the year. We just made a major acquisition of Wall’s work. The main event is a dinner each spring in which the curators present works of art -cquisition and the members vote on what their dues money is to be spent on. Of course, all of the work we present is work that we want and most times we’ve been very fortunate and individual members have stepped up and said, ”If the group doesn’t vote for this, I’ll contribute the funds!” Usually we’ve been able to acquire almost everything we’ve presented.
You were appointed an assistant curator in 1993, the same year that “The Waking Dream: Photography’s First Century,” a huge exhibit of photography from the Gilman Collection, was exhibited. The Department of Photography was only created in 1992. What took so long for the Museum to formally recognize a department of photography?
Well, this museum collected photography before MOMA was founded. It’s important to us now that we are a separate department, but the Met began collecting photography in 1928. It was in the purview of the Prints department but we had quite visionary curators. The first curator of the Print Department was William Ivins followed by Hyatt Mayor. Both of them had an all-encompassing sense of what constituted the graphic arts. In the fifties John Mckendry was at the helm. He had connections to the fashion world and brought in a little more contemporary photography. When Weston Naef came in first as a college intern. then as assistant curator, he took photography as his bailiwick and focused on building the collection further. So there was a sustained interest but no pressing need to make it a separate department.
When Maria came in 1985 she was the first curator specifically hired as a photography curator and the first to have done her doctorate with a focus on a photographer. She came in as an associate curator prepared to lead such a department. It took a little time to establish it. She came in and built the collection through the Ford Motor Collection acquisition and made her mark through various exhibitions. The director and the trustees saw what she was doing and understood that photography had its own history. I think that it’s more remarkable that this museum has been collecting photography for eighty years than that it didn’t have a department of photography until 1992.
By the time you assumed the post of Curator in Charge, in 2004, the museum had already started to vigorously collect more contemporary photography. It seems as if the museum was trying to rapidly make up for lost time. Do you see a major shift in that direction at this point?
I think that’s true. We have always collected right up to the present day but as long as Maria’s been here and I’ve been here we have exhibited contemporary photographers. But I do think, with the acquisition of the Gilman Collection giving us such great strength in the first hundred years of photography and setting so high a standard in terms of image and print quality, that there would be fewer and fewer acquisitions of 19th-century and vintage work needed to fill the gap in our collection. Our acquisitions will be focused on the period from 1960 to the present and, of course, new work is being made every day!
Your curatorial interests, on the other hand, seem to remain largely in the 19th and 20th century. You curated the exhibits “Edgar Degas, Photographer” in 1999, “The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes” in 2003 to ‘04, and most recently “All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860” in 2005. Do you see your interests changing with the museum’s growing interest in contemporary photography or is this an area that is dearest to your heart and likely to remain so?
Yes, my heart remains in the 19th century, there’s no question! I find it a remarkable moment particularly in the 1850’s when photography was fully mature and taken up by trained artists and yet it was still a hand-crafted medium. It hadn’t yet been industrialized. There were such glorious pictures being made by French and British photographers and American photographers.
Who, among your staff, advises you on contemporary photography? What kind of work or trends are they bringing to your attention?
There are two people. The first is Douglas Eklund; he’s an assistant curator whose area of specialty is 1950 to the present. He’s working on a show called “The Pictures Generation: Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Laurie Simmons.” Louise Lawler is currently scheduled for 2009. It should be a great show! He’s the staff member who is most frequently out in the galleries, meeting with artists, meeting with dealers and collectors.
However, we also go out as a department once a month and Doug has usually gone out and done the scouting around and figured out what is most important for us to see as a group. The second person is Maria Hambourg, who after several years of being on leave has returned part time. After doing so much in the 19th century and early 20th century, what she’s finding most exciting is the contemporary world and she’s working closely with Doug in that area.
Now that the Gilman Paper Collection is officially part of the museum’s holdings, would you say that the Met has become the preemptive power in world-class photography collections? Any rivals to this collection of over 8,500 images?
Yes, there are rivals, but I think it places us in the highest rank. It’s very hard to compare collections. In terms of the 19th century our only rival is the Getty Museum. If you compare us to MOMA, certainly MOMA is stronger in classic 20th-century photography. If you compare us to the Museum D’Orsay, yes they have a stronger French 19th-century collection. If you look at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England, with their acquisition of the Royal Photographic Society collection, they have great strength in turn-of-the-century material like the Stieglitz collection. They have the second highest concentration of Pictorialist photography in the world and they have an unrivaled collection of 19th-century British photographers.
You participated in a panel discussion recently at the Met in conjunction with AIPAD. The panel’s theme was “Collaboration: Collector & Curator” and you shared the stage with Pierre Apraxine of the Gilman Paper Company Collection, as well as several other museum curator and collectors. Are you still working with Mr. Apraxine to acquire new works?
In an informal way. Pierre has a suburb eye and experience, so we ask his opinion about work few are considering -cquisition, or ideas for exhibitions. The next installation to open in the Gilman Gallery in February titled “Sight Unseen” is from the Gilman collection—photographs that have never been shown in the Met before. Pierre worked with associate curator Jeff Rosenheim to choose the work for the exhibit. We rely on Pierre for the history of that collection. He knows more about those pictures than anybody else. He was the curator for the recent exhibition “Spirit Photographs.”
While the Howard Gilman Gallery is a wonderful showcase for earlier photography it can’t accommodate the large-scale images of many contemporary photographers. Any plans to create a permanent gallery for this work? Do you foresee any future trends that indicate another great shift in the photographic horizons?
Yes, though the details can’t really be announced yet, funds have been donated and plans are very much alive – gallery of contemporary photography that would be appropriate in scale and space to view photography of our own time. Our notion of what constitutes a photograph is expanding so we will continue, carefully, and slowly, to acquire works of video and new media that seem to mesh with our interests in photography. It may be that the modern art department also collects in that area and we hope there will be communication and collaboration. After all, we are all one museum and I wouldn’t want to see the history of photography divorced from the contemporary expressions of that medium!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is located at 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York, NY. For general information call: 212.535.7710 or visit
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